Southwest Airlines flight cancellations continue to snowball

Keywords Airlines / Travel

Travelers who counted on Southwest Airlines to get them home suffered through another wave of canceled flights Wednesday, and pressure grew on the federal government to help customers get reimbursed for unexpected expenses they incurred because of the airline’s meltdown.

Exhausted Southwest travelers tried finding seats on other airlines or renting cars to get to their destination, but many remained stranded. The airline’s CEO said it could be next week before the flight schedule returns to normal.

Adontis Barber, a 34-year-old jazz pianist from Kansas City, Missouri, had camped out in the city’s airport since his Southwest flight was canceled Saturday and wondered if he would ever get to a New Year’s gig in Washington, D.C.

“I give up,” he said. “I’m starting to feel homeless.”

By late morning on the East Coast, about 90% of all canceled flights Wednesday in the U.S. were on Southwest, according to the FlightAware tracking service. Other airlines recovered from ferocious winter storms that hit large swaths of the country over the weekend, but not Southwest, which canceled nearly 5,000 flights Wednesday and Thursday, including dozens in and out of Indianapolis International Airport.

The Dallas-based airline was undone by a combination of factors including an antiquated crew-scheduling system and a network design that allows cancellations in one region to cascade throughout the country rapidly. Those weaknesses are not new—they helped cause a similar failure by Southwest in October 2021.

The federal government is now investigating what happened at Southwest, which carries more passengers within the United States than any other airline.

In a video that Southwest posted late Tuesday, CEO Robert Jordan said Southwest would operate a reduced schedule for several days but hoped to be “back on track before next week.”

Jordan blamed the winter storm for snarling the airline’s “highly complex” network. He said Southwest’s tools for recovering from disruptions work “99% of the time, but clearly we need to double down” on upgrading systems to avoid a repeat of this week.

“We have some real work to do in making this right,” said Jordan, a 34-year Southwest veteran who became CEO in February. “For now, I want you to know that we are committed to that.”

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, who has criticized airlines for previous disruptions, said that “meltdown” was the only word he could think of to describe this week’s events at Southwest. He noted that while cancellations across the rest of the industry declined to about 4% of scheduled flights, they remained above 60% at Southwest.

From the high rate of cancellations to customers’ inability to reach Southwest on the phone, the airline’s performance has been unacceptable, Buttigieg said. He vowed to hold the airline accountable and push it to reimburse travelers.

“They need to make sure that those stranded passengers get to where they need to go and that they are provided adequate compensation,” including for missed flights, hotels and meals, he said Wednesday on ABC’s “Good Morning America.”

In Congress, the chair of the Senate Commerce Committee also promised an investigation. Separately, two other Senate Democrats called on Southwest to provide “significant” compensation for stranded travelers, saying that the airline has the money because it plans to pay $428 million in dividends next month.

Leaders of Southwest’s labor unions have warned for years that the airline’s crew-scheduling system, which dates to the 1990s, was inadequate, and the CEO acknowledged this week that the technology needs to be upgraded.

The other large U.S. airlines use “hub and spoke” networks in which flights radiate out from a few major or hub airports. That helps limit the reach of disruptions caused by bad weather in part of the country.

Southwest, however, has a “point to point” network in which planes crisscross the country during the day. This can increase the utilization and efficiency of each plane, but problems in one place can ripple across the country, leaving crews trapped out of position.

Barber, the musician from Kansas City, already missed a performance Sunday in Dallas but had hoped to make it to Washington in time for a New Year’s performance near the National Mall.

“I’m missing out on money,” he lamented.

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6 thoughts on “Southwest Airlines flight cancellations continue to snowball

  1. The only way to stop this terrible customer service is to make it so punitive on the airlines to where they would actually experience real financial pain. When they cancel flights, it is always punitive on their customers. Extended hotel rooms, meals, airport parking, rental cars, sitting in airports for hours and hours and being constantly lied to by the airline staff, delayed vacation value, etc. etc. So, make it so punitive on the airlines where they actually “feel” their customers’ pain.

    DAMAGES: For every dollar spent on an airline (including taxes), the airline should have to provide 3x or 4x in punitive damages to the customer. This is to be done through a REFUND (within 3 business days) to their credit card that was used to buy the ticket initially. None of this “AIRLINE VOUCHER” BS (where it expires in one year) where in order to receive compensation for their damages, I am now forced to use the same airline that gave me such poor service.

    Imagine getting severe food poisoning from a restaurant and being told that your only compensation was a food voucher to be used (into the future) at the very same restaurant that gave you the food poisoning,!! Would you take that deal?!

    Finally, I was a part of all of this mess dealing with flight delays, cancellations on 3 separate Delta flights and 1 Southwest flight – 4 cancellations over 3 days. These issues for me over the total 5 days cost me ~$3000…and that is without putting any value on my time, loss of work, etc. and it all ended up with me getting a one way rental car (just the one way fee being $400 with Enterprise) and driving 1100 miles home over 2 days. This industry needs to be held accountable and stop treating us like a bunch of cattle. They are the worst product in the service industry (except for our government) and they have had the most bailouts and subsidization by US tax dollars than any other product. STOP throwing money (through bailouts and subsidization) at them and force them to fix their problems…

    1. Exactly. The problem is, the industry is enabled by the only organization worse, the gov. Laughing at the politicians calling for Immediate Discussion!! and the journalists all regurgitating the same story over and over.
      Nothing is going happen. The politicians will go quiet in a week and the journalists will go back to their regularly scheduled agenda

      IBJ, prove me wrong. 30 days from now, let’s hear an update from Pete and Saint Andre. You remember him right? Indy’s favorite ghost employee. I’ll look forward to the article.

    2. Banning campaign contributions and super PAC’s solves all kinds of problems, as does not sending back incumbents at a 90% clip.

      A reminder also that Greg Pence, who is also coasting on his family name, now represents a large chunk of Indianapolis … along with Richmond Indiana thanks to gerrymandering.

    3. Maybe read all the information out there…. All those impacted are legally required to be fully covered by Southwest Airlines for their extended stays meals etc.

      I’d guess there’s a 50% chance SWA never recovers from this financially?

  2. JJ Frankie: if they cannot even rebook flights, cannot even schedule staffing because of an antiquated system…how do we expect them to 100% satisfy the reimbursements?!

    Joe B: Secretary Pete – wow, he really put the hammer down…Southwest Airlines “told him the airline will commit to providing reimbursing”. Southwest is sitting on our money and that is how it will end because NOTHING ever gets remedied anymore, no accountability anymore. Does commit mean they will actually do it?! Doubtful!!

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